Bureaucracy! This word is often used in frustration. Sometimes the word seems to be worse than any of the cuss words we use. But what is bureaucracy? And can we turn it in to something good for an HR department?
What is bureaucracy?
The word bureaucracy is commonly used to describe the strict way a governmental institution works in order to answer questions or solve issues. Another word typically associated with this situation is red tape. There are plenty of comic sketches illustrating the bad and inefficient sides of bureaucracy; the best one being a famous Dutch commercial about a girl that lost her purple plastic crocodile at a swimming pool and wants to get it back. Her mom gets frustrated with forms and procedures even though the crocodile is in plain sight. Equally funny but slightly less on the subject of bureaucracy are the English sketches containing the phrase “Computer says no” by Little Britain.We can all think of a situation like this and remember the associated anger and disbelief. Believe it or not, bureaucracy started out as something good. In order to find out what went wrong we need to go back in time. (If you don’t like a history lesson, skip to “Bureaucracy and HR” below)
Who invented such an ugly thing!?!
While no-one can really claim to have invented bureaucracy, a German sociologist named Max Weber was one of the first to describe it in a scientific way. And believe it or not; he described it as an efficient form of organization…….. OK, when you are done laughing let’s actually delve into Max’s ideas instead of simply misquoting one of the great thinkers of his time.
Back then, things were changing from a classic farm-village society into a a more industrial-city orientated society. Instead of dealing with your friendly neighbors (which were more often than not related as well), you come to a city full of people you have never met and not knowing how to arrange things. In order to deal with the influx of new citizens in an efficient way, the local administrations began to standardize processes. This had the added benefit of treating everyone the same, preventing clientelism.
Karl Emil Maximilian (Max) Weber was one of the great thinkers of this time and saw the first forms of bureaucracy as an efficient form of organization with a well-defined line of authority. It had clear rules and regulations which were strictly followed. In an ideal world, this meant that regular governmental employees could help anyone at their desk, simply following the rules which would ensure a fair treatment to everyone. But Weber, being a smart guy, also saw the danger of bureaucracy which he called the iron cage. To keep things short, he predicted that bureaucracy would become what we believe it to be now, if people forgot that it is simply a tool to help people instead of a dogma of efficiency which should be followed no matter what.
Bureaucracy and HR
With the history lesson done, it’s time to look at what HR can learn from Max and his bureaucracy. In HR, we have seen an increase in the amount of technology we use to provide service to our clients (your colleagues 😉 ). Some of you know it as e-HRM, but if we look in a broader spectrum it is called service management. HR teams use software to provide information to their colleagues, which enables them to ask questions about their paychecks or inform us of changes in their personal situation. For simple questions and requests, bureaucracy can help to bring standardized processes and help colleagues in a fast and efficient way. However, and this is where we can truly learn from Weber’s teachings, we should never see the standardized process as something which can not be changed or made an exception on!
As an HR department, it is your duty to provide a great service to your colleagues, so they can focus on their own job without worrying about HR-side-stuff. Sometimes, this means you provide a standard answer or service to a simple question, but other times you should recognize that the question does not fit in your standardized process. Instead of forcing the question into one of the standard solutions, try to think of your colleague behind the question and how you can best help him or her. Making exceptions and providing bespoke solutions should be part of your HR arsenal in order to help your colleagues enjoy their work and function better.
My simple advise for a great HR service solution
Looking at the positive sides of bureaucracy, and taking the dangers into account, we can come up with two basic tips:
- Provide your colleagues with information so they can find their own answers if they wish to. Obviously you do this digitally in this day and age, through a nice service portal. People are used to search for their own answers (thank you Google!) so help them find the information. As an added bonus, this will save you a lot of time and prevent the less challenging work of answering these basic questions.
- With the time you saved above, you make sure you provide bespoke solutions for the situations which require your HR view. Truly help your colleagues with their questions, problems and requests instead of trying to answer questions as quickly as possible. Try to search for the question behind the question asked, and look for opportunities to improve your HR services where possible.
With these simple tips you can use the good parts of bureaucracy to save time and provide efficient service, while keeping an eye on the dangers of the red-taped-iron-cage. And maybe, just maybe, we will use the word bureaucracy in a more positive (or at least neutral) way in the future.
Please share your advise on great HR services if you have any. If not, I am sure you can share horrible examples of bureaucracy that will help us remember how we should not practice our work as HR professional.